Screens and our boys
A 2019 report from Common Sense Media found that teenagers spend an astounding nine hours a day with digital technology. “Tweens” aged 8 to 12 are spending six hours with digital media. Is it any wonder that many parents feel like their kids have a screen problem? Astoundingly, this time online is all recreational use - social media, video streaming, listening to music, and playing games. It doesn’t even include screen time spent on homework.
While this isn’t Australian data, most Australian parents know roughly how much screen time their kids are having, and it feels like too much.
We didn’t know we were signing up for this when we became parents! After all, most of us grew up in an era of dial up internet connection and mobile phones that were only used for calls. It just wasn’t possible to spend nine hours a day on screens when we were teens!
So how can we help our teens when we really don’t know what we’re doing?
Is screen time the problem we think it is?
Provocative results from recent studies indicate that screen time is, by and large, apparently not the big issue that most parents think. Professor Andrew Przybylski (pronounced shu-bill-ski ) is an experimental psychology researcher at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute who famously said that the number of potatoes your child eats for dinner has a bigger impact on their health and wellbeing than how many hours of screen time they consume.
Like I said… provocative .
But stats like this can annoy parents who, when looking at things practically, will say that all this research arguing that screen time doesn’t matter is baloney because when the kids are on screens they won’t do anything else, and when a parent tries to encourage their child to get off their screen and do something else… anything else… it feels like we’re starting World War III.
While the studies might say that the statistical impact on kids’ wellbeing is minimal, it just doesn’t match up to parents’ lived experience of the screen time issues at play in our homes.
- We worry about the stuff our kids are exposed to online.
- We worry about the impact screens are having on their physical health.
- We worry about how it’s impacting their mental health and emotional wellbeing.
- We worry about cyberbullying
- We worry about exposure to explicit language
- We worry about violence, and
- We worry about pornography.
And we worry about the life our kids are missing out on because they’re so absorbed in their screens.
These risks are real. When a parent says “my kids are on their screens too much”, the researchers might say “don’t worry… screens aren’t hurting your kids.”
But what parents are really saying is “my kids aren’t living full and balanced lives, and they’re seeing stuff that could be harmful or dangerous, or that’s inconsistent with my values.” That’s why we’re worried. And that’s why we want our kids to get off their screens.
I’ll share some general ideas about encouraging our kids to get off screens once we’ve reviewed some of the challenges screens are causing. But if you’ve read the paragraphs above and felt frustration, I’m with you. You don’t need science experiments to tell you that when kids are on screens they are
- Less likely to listen to their parents,
- Less likely to help around the house,
- Less likely to sleep when they should,
- Less likely to do their schoolwork,
- More likely to fight with siblings (often over screens!), and
- More likely to miss opportunities to live a full and meaningful life
As a dad to six children, I struggle to understand why the research says that screens are only minimally impacting our kids. It doesn’t make sense to me… but I think it’s one of those things that we’ll understand better as more research comes to light. For now, this is where we’re at.
What makes boys’ screen time usage different to girls’?
Given that practically all teens are glued to their devices, you might wonder why I’m focusing on boys here. It’s because boys and girls use screens differently. If there’s going to be any hype in the media or concern on the part of parents, it usually divides cleanly along the following lines:
- For girls, it’s a social media problem. The topics are body image and self-esteem, bullying, and sexting/sending nudes.
- For boys, the central issue is gaming. Concerns relate to exposure to violent content and getting boys off their games.
So let’s talk about boys and their screens, and we’ll start with gaming.
Many parents report that their boys’ gaming is a problem. Boys often spend all day and all night on screens. They don’t do what we ask them to do, like sleep, do their homework, or help around the house. They don’t even do things they should want to do, like exercise, or spend time with friends in real life.
Data shows that 97% of male teens play games online. According to Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned designer of alternate reality games, by the age of 21, the average boy will have played 10,000 hours of video games .
While both boys and girls enjoy gaming, boys are drawn to their games in ways that girls are not. Given the choice between social media and gaming, girls choose the relational while boys care more for the competition and stimulation that games offer. This is probably why 4 out of 10 teenage boys say they spend too much time gaming, compared to just one in ten girls. This acknowledgment is fascinating to me. They know it!
But is gaming good or bad?
To the chagrin of so many parents, much research indicates that playing video games is associated with positive mental health outcomes for our boys. And the latest research suggests that there is no link between playing video games and wellbeing. That means your son’s wellbeing isn’t affected in any meaningful way by the amount of game time he has.
Again, how does this square with your experience?
Well… this is good research from well regarded scholars, but it’s also research that is based on just a six-week timeframe with the average age of gamers being 34 years of age. That’s hardly representative of a teenager who stays up all night playing games, misses school, and yells at his parents and siblings. And… perhaps he feels great. After all, he’s playing video games all day and night! That doesn’t mean it’s good for his wellbeing.
While many researchers will argue that that most kids are unaffected or even #blessed when they play video games, make no mistake; there are significant risks and dangers when gaming takes over your child’s life. The researchers of the study cited above outlining positive impacts of games on kids also empahsised:
“By highlighting the positive effects of playing a wide range of video games, it is not our intention to gloss over their very real potential for harm. Indeed, important research has already been conducted for decades on the negative effects of gaming, including addiction, depression, and aggression (Anderson et al., 2010; Ferguson, 2007), and we are certainly not suggesting that this body of research should be ignored.”
In correspondence with Barbara Biggins, Honorary CEO of Children and Media Australia , she described concerns that have been identified in research studies, “mostly in the areas linked to higher cognitive function”. Barbara explained that “kids with problematic screen use have multiple issues including reduced attention, other reduced cognitive function, impacts on many areas of physical and psychological development, including musculoskeletal and vision problems, obesity, socio-emotional problems, depression and anxiety, sleep deprivation, going backwards academically, increased aggression and relationship problems just to name a few.”
Of course, the issue here is that many kids don’t have “problematic screen use” and so the data, when averaged, gives us a reduced perspective of how serious the issue can be.
The World Health Organisation added “gaming disorder” to the International Classification of Diseases a couple of years ago. The diagnosis is for a person who, because of their gaming addiction, has experienced “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of function” for at least one year. A study in the journal Addictive Behaviours in early 2020 found that among 3,000 students, 19% of males were classified as having a gaming disorder vs. 7.8% of females.
The research also tells us that violent video games do increase aggressive behaviour, but that they don’t increase aggressive behaviour in the way you might think or to the level you might think.
Here’s what I mean:
Some of the best recent research that examines this issue was conducted by Maya Mathur and Tyler VanderWeele at Stanford University. Their meta-analysis showed that violent video games do “increase aggressive behaviour but that these effects are almost always quite small.” Other studies show the same thing, not just on aggressive behaviour, but also on reduced prosocial behaviour, reduced academic performance, depressive symptoms, and attention deficit symptoms.
To quote another researcher, the effects “are minimal”.
How does this square with your experience?
Parents consistently confirm that conflicts over gaming are some of the most painful flashpoints in their family. Telling your son to exit out of a game when his brain’s reward pathways are flooded with a huge dopamine high can lead to explosive reactions. And the fact that the video gaming industry is worth an estimated $160bn means business is booming at your family’s expense.
Research and reality don’t match for everyone. We see aggressive behaviour increase when they game. We see prosocial behaviour decrease when they game. We see them stop trying at school. We see them become sullen, stop sleeping, become abusive, and carry on like lunatics. We see their ADHD symptoms spike. And we cry out, “Of course it’s the games!”
But is it the games? Or is it less about the content, and more about what the games are displacing? Sleep, diet, friendships, physical activity, nature, purpose and meaning… These are the areas that we know our kids need to focus on to help make life feel great.
So games… can be good or bad depending on how much your kids are playing them, and what game they’re playing, and why, and who with, and how long, and… you get the picture. As parents, it’s up to us to help our kids manage their gaming in healthy, safe ways.
Gaming is a big issue because it’s right under our noses. We see it. We hear it. It’s an easy and obvious target of frustration. But something far more insidious and concerning is happening on our son’s screens and it’s something they keep hidden.
Children are exposed to pornography (either intentionally or unintentionally) at frighteningly young ages. Most will have seen it by the time they finish primary school. Don’t kid yourself that your child won’t view porn. If they’re a teen, chances are that they’ve seen it already.
We don’t really know how many of our kids are seeing explicit content. Estimates vary wildly depending on which report you read. We do know that many see it unintentionally , and they would rather not see it. But one recent survey indicated that about 34% of kids aged 10-17 intentionally viewed pornography.
Like gaming, pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. An estimated 30 000 people are viewing pornography at any given second. And our teen boys are one of the biggest consumers.
While some may argue that pornography can be great for women’s empowerment and exploring sexuality, the reality is that our teens don’t even know to look for safe, healthy options. What they see is typically:
- Incredibly violent
- Incredibly misogynistic
- Incredibly racist
- Incredibly exploitative (of both performers and users)
- Incredibly oriented towards male dominance and male pleasure
Modern pornography is full of unhealthy (and unsafe) messages about what sex is. And this leads to problematic unrealistic expectations around sex.
For example, strangulation (also known as choking) pornography is something that would simply never have been shown in regular pornographic content in the 1980s or 1990s. It would have been a niche within a niche within the BDSM community. Today it is on the front page of every pornography platform in the world. It is so routine you can come across it on social media including Instagram. It has flooded the culture so much that articles in popular women’s magazines provide guides for how to experiment with breath play (of course, all consensually). Anal sex is another example of an uncommon act being mainstreamed with the development and growth of porn.
Today’s pornography teaches and reinforces unhealthy, unsafe sexual concepts and practices to young people, almost all who lack sexual experience. An overwhelmingly large percentage of young adult males are watching pornography and imbibing beliefs about how to behave sexually before they’ve ever held hands or kissed someone!
Make no mistake… The Internet has transformed pornography consumption. Where we had to look for it, our kids now have access to an endless supply of free and diverse material at the click of a button. Online pornography is accessible from virtually anywhere with an Internet connection.
Most reviews (like the one titled “ Basically… porn is everywhere ” by the UK’s Child Commissioner in 2013) point to significant risks associated with pornography consumption by kids. One very careful and relatively current review of research from 1995 through to 2015 found that adolescents who used pornography more frequently were:
- at a more advanced pubertal stage,
- sensation seekers, and
- had weak or troubled family relations.
Additionally, pornography use:
- Was associated with more permissive sexual attitudes
- Tended to be linked with stronger gender-stereotypical sexual beliefs
- Was related to the occurrence of sexual intercourse,
- Was related to greater experience with casual sex behavior, and
- Was related to more sexual aggression, both in terms of perpetration and victimisation.
Not all research tells us to be worried though. (Do researchers ever agree on anything?)
In an upcoming book , Richard Reeves - a highly credible researcher from the Brookings Institute, offers some assurance for parents worried that their boys’ exposure to pornography will turn them into sexual predators. Effectively turning everything above on its head, he states that the very latest studies show that:
“Porn does not lead to increased rates of sexual crime - in fact, the correlation seems to go the other way. [At least in terms of trends]. It does not appear to alter views on gender roles. It does not lead to more risky sexual behavior; again if anything the opposite seems to be true . There does not appear to be a causal link to infidelity or divorce. It is true that porn use is higher in troubled relationships, but it seems likely that the troubles lead to the porn, as much as the other way around. It is also worth noting that gay or bisexual men are much more likely to view porn without apparent ill effects.”
But… Reeves’ research is more oriented towards adults rather than children. And this is where the pornography story becomes complex. It seems to have differential impacts on people depending on who they are, what their age is, their belief system, and so on.
Even if we believe that pornography isn’t bad, as parents we know that pornography is not for kids. It’s not for tweens. It’s not for teens. Yet too many of them are consuming it at frightening levels. (My favourite article on why kids need to stay away from pornography is here , and it offers a perspective most of the other research I’ve reviewed doesn’t go near. It’s an outstanding read.)
Lastly, we’re seeing more and more of our boys (particularly heavy internet users and heavy gamers) getting caught up in gambling. The numbers aren’t as substantial on this issue as they are for gaming and pornography, but the costs can be lifelong, and high.
One recent UK study found that:
“The prevalence of 11–16 year olds exposed to online gambling adverts, sponsorships, and direct marketing continues to rise and drives increasing participation in gambling activities. In 2019, 7% of children in this age group reported ever having gambled online. Almost half of online gambling activity in this age group now takes place through mobile apps, made possible by the widespread uptake of smartphones among young people. In-game gambling, such as playing casino games and opening loot boxes, is becoming increasingly common in apps, online videogames, and unlicensed third party websites, and some children receive money from their parents to be spent specifically on these gambling games.”
While only a low number, the study found that 1.7% of 11–16 year olds in the UK were classified as “problem gamblers” (a proxy measure for gambling disorder) in 2019, a 4-times increase from 2016.
We know gambling is bad for adults. Obviously it’s going to be bad for our kids as well. Problem gambling in early adolescence is almost certain to profoundly impact mental, emotional, and social wellbeing, as well as school outcomes. My guess is it would probably be associated with other addictions as well.
How to tackle the issues
If you’re like me, you probably feel like the research doesn’t match your experience when it comes to our kids and screens. You’re worried about the impact of these things on your sons and you want them to avoid the negative outcomes they could experience.
If you want solutions, here are 6 ideas to help:
1. Be a model of healthy screen use
Your example will not be the ultimate factor in determining how your child uses screens. Teen boys don’t look at what mum’s doing on Instagram and decide to use their screen the way that you do. However…
The more you are on your screen, the more your child will feel comfortable using theirs. The more you use social media or play games, the more your child will feel that you endorse that activity - and the more that they’ll use it against you when you try to suggest they use their screen less.
The other thing that happens when we use our screens minimally - and in the right context - is that we become actively involved in life, relationships, activities, and family. Our availability and engagement in family life is likely to draw our children to us rather than seeing them scamper to their screens for succour.
2. Understand your child’s brain
I know that most parents will say that they have no idea what’s going on in their son’s head… but a few things are easy to remember:
- Your son is driven to connect with others
- Your son is driven to do hard things and get good at stuff
- Your son wants to feel in control of his own decisions
Games, social media, and gambling facilitate these needs. As an example, when your son plays video games, his brain’s reward circuitry lights up like mad because those three factors are being satisfied and supported in crazy powerful ways.
Simply understanding this helps us to be more compassionate and patient. It also offers us a guide to how we can respond to our child’s demands to be online and gaming. And it can point the way to useful alternative activities (which I’ll mention more of shortly).
3. Know the other factors at play
Your son is not only dealing with a brain that ignites when screens become a part of the picture. There are any number of other factors that might be driving his challenging screen behaviour. These could include:
- Pressure from friends to game, view explicit content, be on social media, or gamble
- Financial pressures (and poor decisions related to money that you don’t know about)
- Curiosity and a desire to understand more about things of a sexual nature
- The pull towards popularity
- A learning disorder or challenge
- The desire to be popular
- A desire to test you and see whether you’ll impose limits
- School stress
- Fear of failure
- Feeling incomplete
- A response to family ruptures and breakdown
Or it could be any number of other things too. The only way you can know about these other factors is to be involved in your child’s life in a way that they feel safe enough to talk with you about what’s going on. Sometimes this can be difficult, particularly if there has been a length of time where the relationship has deteriorated. This leads to my next suggestion:
4. Working it out together…
If screen issues exist, fighting about it won’t help. Force creates resistance. Instead create a conversation based on the following by:
- Choosing the right time. Talk to your son when the pressure is off, food is on hand, and the conversation can flow easily and safely. A public place like a cafe or a park might be a useful option.
- Making consent a priority. Before you start on your agenda, let your son know you want to talk about the issues you’ve both been having. Ask if it’s ok? If he says yes, you can go ahead. If he says no, be accepting and just enjoy your time together. But set a time when you can have the conversation.
- Staying on their side. Let your son know you’re not there to force an issue or fight. You just want to understand and work things out for both of you. Trust is essential. Does he believe you want what’s in his best interest?
- Asking them what they’ve noticed. Start off by exploring how he sees things. What’s he noticing about screens? How does the conflict feel to him? What does he think the heart of the issue is?
- Sharing what you’re observing. Describe what you’re experiencing. And then…
- Empowering him to work on a solution with you. Ask him how he sees things improving. What does he believe is a satisfactory way forward for BOTH of you?
5. Agree on a contingency
Once you’ve had your conversation about possible ways forward, you need to let your son know that there is a chance plan A won’t work. He needs to know that if things don’t go to plan, you have a threshold at which you have to intervene. Let him know what that threshold is, and problem-solve together as to how you can intervene in a way that won’t spark accusations that you’re being unfair and that you’re the worst parent in the world. Intervening can’t create chaos and conflict. He needs to agree to this ahead of time.
6. Provide “competing task” opportunities
Screen time requires the focus of the person on the screen. Find activities your son can do that are incompatible with being on a screen. Sports and active time outside are good examples. So is getting a job (if he’s old enough).
It’s imperative that whatever the competing task is, that it ignites those reward pathways through building connections, building capability, and giving him a sense of control. Puzzle out some options together.
When the problem is bigger…
Some boys will refuse to talk about it with you. They’ll refuse to admit there’s a problem. You’ll be the cause of all the strife. They’ll play the “you’re being a controlling parent” card. And you’ll get nowhere. In this case:
- Consider his view . Could he be correct? Is your relationship more about control than connection? How can you get a clear understanding of how you show up in the relationship?
- Build the relationship. Correction and direction only work if there are high levels of connection. Maybe you are right… but if he isn’t feeling seen, heard, and valued in the relationship, nothing you say will work.
- Minimise the use of controlling techniques. The more you try to control things, the bigger the challenges you’ll have. Force creates resistance. Finding mutual solutions is the only truly effective way to move things forward. It’s ok to put the x-box away except on weekends, and it’s ok to have time limits and rules. The idea, however, is we do it collaboratively rather than in a controlling way.
- Pick your battles. Work out what’s worth fighting about. Don’t get dragged into unnecessary conflict. If you are already working through issues around school work or peer relationships, now may not be the time to start an argument about screen usage. But go hard at what you know warrants that level of attention.
- Find a compromise. Maybe you can’t get everything you want out of this situation. As the parent you have the obligation to work on this until you can be sure your child is safe and healthy. Work with what he’ll give you. Perhaps he can use his devices so long as he stays on top of school, doesn’t fight with his brother, keeps family rules, etc.
Know when to get help
Now and then nothing works. That’s the nature of parenting. We struggle with some things more than others. If you need to, get help. There are good psychologists, addiction experts, gaming disorder therapists, and mentors and guides in schools, private organisations, and public services. Seek them out, and ask for help.
We want to raise kids who are safe, healthy, and who make wise decisions. When we were the same age as our kids are now, we all made decisions that were unsafe, unhealthy, and unwise. If we were lucky, we had parents around us who were patient, gentle, and compassionate. They saw our mistakes and worked with us bit by bit as we matured and found our way. (If we didn’t have those adults near us, I guarantee that’s what we were hoping for.) Our poor decisions looked different, compared to what our kids are experiencing in a digital world. But the principles are the same. This is our opportunity to be there for our boys as they figure things out and learn to do the next bit of their lives on their own - safely, healthily, and eventually, wisely too.